Supreme Court must order a judicial probe into Pegasus scandal

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By: Arun Srivastava

It is a good omen that the Supreme Court has agreed to the fact that the allegations of snooping are serious if the reports regarding it are correct in the course of the hearing on Thursday.

While hearing pleas seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter, the bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana observed; “Reports of snooping came to light in 2019. I do not know whether any efforts were made to get more information”.

Some stray incidents had surfaced, but in 2019 none had imagined that the political establishment of the country would spy on its own people. The scandal would not have got exposed if the consortium of 16 media outlets had not taken the initiative to find the truth. The snooping has much wider dynamics and implications and cannot be fitted into the bracket of the Telegraph Act. Obviously, it needs an independent probe.

The Guild and other journalists have challenged the constitutional validity of Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. These provisions permit the government to intercept the electronic devices of citizens subject to various safeguards. If the snooping was done under the provisions of these acts, then there was no need for the government pretending to be honest and not aware of the operation.

The petitions are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus. Obviously, the façade of secrecy that is being maintained by the government turns its suspect and raises questions on its intentions. Questions are being asked, why is the Modi government not coming clean in tatter? If he has not ordered snooping then what is the harm in ordering a probe? Modi government has so far resisted the Opposition’s demand to discuss the issue in Parliament and refused to acknowledge or deny whether it had bought the Pegasus software which can only be accessed by governments or government-run agencies.

The media consortium exposed that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware. An old phone number of former Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra and the numbers of two officers of the Supreme Court registry are on the list that featured potential targets for surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, The Wire news portal reported on Wednesday.

Other new names disclosed by the portal include that of a lawyer for Christian Michel, the British “middleman” extradited to India in 2018 in the Agusta Westland helicopter deal case. Shockingly the Modi government had planned to use Michel’s testimony to implicate the Nehru-Gandhi family in the scam.

In fact, since 2019 Modi government has been snooping on the media and some important persons. This is confirmed by the deliberations amongst the group of ministers who have been entrusted with the task to keep watch on their activities.

Nine ministers, including media stars Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, Smriti Irani and S. Jaishankar, were involved in the exercise that culminated in a 97-page report written after consulting leading figures from the media and industry. The report, which caused a stir when it was first reported in Caravan Magazine, reveals how the government mistrusts the press and looks upon it as an adversary dominated by its enemies.

Six meetings with ministers, journalists elicit responses like ‘helping’ friendly outlets, ‘acting’ against critics, ‘separating’ mass from elite communication. The then Law & Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had observed; “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news”. Interestingly Smriti Irani suggests, “We should track 50 negative and 50 positive influencers.” Surya Prakash, former chairman of Prasar Bharati, says: “Pseudo-secularists were marginalized earlier. The problem is starting from them. Indian Government has enormous power to utilise the position to control them.”

Even after two election wins, the second bigger than the first, the government has been striving to boost its image and combat what it believes is the “pseudo-secularist” hold on the media that colours reporting on its actions. An insight into the Pegasus snooping would reveal that almost all the journalists that have been under surveillance are perceived as secularists. “A list of media personnel and prominent persons, who are pro our line of thought – both nationally and globally, should be prepared,” adds Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Union Minister of Minority Affairs.

The Group of Ministers’ report hints, “at increased surveillance and targeting of writers and journalists who depart from the government’s narrative,” the Editors Guild said.

The fact that the Group of Ministers (GoM) held six meetings that included in-person interactions and video conferences with leading journalists and industrialists and had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an indication of how worried the government is that its performance is being portrayed negatively.

Other ministers in the GoM included Minister of State for Civil Aviation Hardeep Puri, Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs, Anurag Thakur, Minister of State for Youth Affairs & Sport Kiran Rijuju and Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Babul Supriyo.

“News to carry a mixture of truth and untruth,” was the Orwellian suggestion from S. Gurumurthy, co-convenor, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and editor, Tughlak magazine. Gurumurthy also suggested the government needed to “distinguish between mass communication and elite communication.”

Journalists from a number of publications like The Hindustan Times and Organiser also shared their ideas.

Jaishankar suggested special care should be taken for the foreign media. “We should prepare separate, appropriate and different narratives for international media.” Naqvi felt that “embassies should play an active role in reaching out to international media and people globally.” In fact, the government had already acted to control negative reports on it by foreigners. The committee pointed out, “Steps have been taken to ensure that the news reporting on digital media is not biased primarily due to its foreign investment component. It has been decided to cap the foreign investment to 26 per cent and the process to implement the same is underway.”

In the backdrop of these revelations it is explicit that the Modi government has been using its intelligence resources to track the movement of the journalists and keep a watch on them. The same task is being done by the Pegasus. A non-government organisation, the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) also expressed fears that the alleged surveillance operation may have involved an attempt at blackmailing judges.

“Phone hacking via Pegasus could have been an attempt to collect personal information of judges without their knowledge, or like with the Bhima Koregaon activists and lawyers, an attempt at implanting compromising information on the phones of the judges, either of which might have been attempted with a view to blackmail such judges,” the CJAR said.

The NGO said, “this would per se be an attack on the independence of the judiciary that requires a response from the highest court in order to get to the truth of the matter and address the public’s concerns about such illegal attempts to compromise its independence”.

Modi government has been using the NIA, CBI, and ED to torture and terrorise the people who are opposed to the rightist approach and ideology of the government. Since the matter has been raised before the Supreme Court, it should also look into the request of Rona Wilson seeking a probe by an expert into alleged installation of malware on his computer. He has been languishing in jail for nearly two years. He has also moved the high court seeking quashing of the charges against him. Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case accused Rona Wilson’s lawyer has requested the Bombay High Court that an expert should be asked to probe if any malware had been installed on Wilson’s computer before it was seized by the NIA in 2018.

His petition has cited, among other grounds, a report of the US-based digital forensic firm Arsenal Consulting that incriminating evidence was planted on his computer through malware before he was arrested.

As per Arsenal Consulting, a hacker had control of Wilson’s computer, and malware was used to plant documents in it, including a letter that was cited by the NIA as evidence against Wilson and other accused in the case. Arsenal came out with more reports later, claiming that electronic devices of other accused, including Jesuit priest Stan Swamy who died in hospital last month, too had been tampered with. Shoma Sen, another accused in the case, too has filed a petition seeking quashing of charges on the same ground.

The Supreme Court should ask the government to furnish all the information and at the same time also set up a special investigation team of independent and credible investigators, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, to inquire into the allegations of phone hacking. In the backdrop of the revelations of the dubious role of the rulers and government officials, it must order an inquiry as to who authorised the use of Pegasus on phone numbers of a Supreme Court judge and those of a woman employee (and her family) who had complained of sexual harassment by then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. (IPA Service)

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